07/08/2013 01:53 EDT | Updated 09/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Arctic environmentalist wary of federal resource assessment review

YELLOWKNIFE - Northern environmentalists say a deal between the Northwest Territories and a federal economic development agency could water down how proposed resource projects are reviewed.

Federal officials say the agreement is intended to make sure different government departments work together to ensure the assessment goes smoothly.

Late Friday, the federal government released news of a memorandum of understanding between the Northwest Territories and CanNor, the federal agency charged with facilitating economic development in the North.

"It's hard to read where this is coming from, but it would appear to be to grease the skids for further economic development almost at any cost," Kevin O'Reilly of the Yellowknife-based group Alternatives North said Monday.

CanNor head Patrick Borbey said his agency is only involved to make the current process run better.

"As a project makes its way through the various regulatory steps, we work with proponents and other organizations that are involved to see if we can ensure a smooth path," he said.

It's part of a long-standing effort to ease the complexity of the territory's regulatory system, which is complicated by aboriginal land-claim and self-government agreements.

CanNor — charged specifically with promoting economic development — is to lead efforts to bring together different groups in the N.W.T. affected by resource proposals.

"The framework would also seek to co-ordinate efforts in relation to environmental assessment/impact review and regulatory permitting and develop strategies to advance positive economic outcomes in relation to projects," the agreement says.

The document does include a commitment to "effective and transparent" environmental review. Its focus, however, remains on resource development.

Although it contains references to co-operation and collaboration, it makes no mention of guarantees for public input or aboriginal consultation.

"It's being left to a small part of the federal government that is obviously very pro-development to develop this framework," said O'Reilly. "Is there going to be an opportunity for public review?"

Borbey said the agreement will allow CanNor to help communities do things such as analyze training needs and social impacts.

"We have some tools to ensure that communities will be successful in these projects."

Similar agreements are being negotiated with aboriginals groups in both the N.W.T. and Nunavut, Borbey said.

In the spring of 2012, the federal Conservatives angered northern aboriginals when it told them to expect legislation that would replace land-claim-based regulatory boards with a single body made up of an equal number of government and aboriginal members.

Many considered that a weakening of local control and a betrayal of the spirit of hard-won land claims.

Those proposals were first broached in a 2008 report authored by former Alberta regulator Neil McCrank, who concluded that too many regulatory bodies up and down the Mackenzie River Valley were slowing development needlessly.

Contradictory evidence came in 2010, when another federal report found approval times in the N.W.T. weren't substantially longer than elsewhere in Canada. It concluded the longest delays came in Ottawa, where approved projects sat on ministers' desks waiting for the final OK.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton